(This is part-one of a three-part series about the Atlanta Hawks’ offseason. In today’s article, we will look at how Atlanta’s draftees will impact the team.)
Ever since Travis Schlenk began the Atlanta Hawks’ rebuild in earnest with his selection of the high-flying John Collins in 2017, he has stocked almost every position with talented young players. Trae Young is quickly ascending toward MVP-level, as few point guards are capable of handling the insane playmaking and scoring load the former Sooner is asked to carry every night.
At the wings are Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, and De’Andre Hunter; all players who could be quality starters on the wing if they develop properly.
But aside from the unpolished Bruno Fernando, the Hawks have lacked a defensively-gifted anchor who could possibly solidify Atlanta’s leaky defense. For years, coach Lloyd Pierce has lorded over bottom-dwelling teams whose rosters gave up points at an alarming rate (27th in DRTG over the last two years, and last in the league in PPG given up). So even though Atlanta could have selected the cerebral combo guard Tyrese Haliburton or the bouncy Obi Toppin with the sixth pick in the 2020 draft, only one player made sense.
“In the A-T-L, I’m going to bring a lot of defense,” Onyeka Okongwu said after the draft. “I just love playing defense, and I anticipate everything before it even happens. That’s just a natural ability I have.”
Okongwu played one brilliant season at the University of Southern California before declaring for the draft. Standing 6’9 and having a wingspan far longer than that, Okongwu was a menace at the five spot in Troy. He set a freshman record with 76 blocked shots in 28 games, and deterred countless others. But his shot-blocking was only the highlight of a well-rounded skillset, as Okongwu also scored 16.2 points per contest and led the PAC-12 in field goal percentage (.616).
While Okongwu sported gaudy scoring statistics, he got a generous portion of his points off hustle plays and as the screener. So the big man should be very comfortable running the pick and roll with Trae Young from day one. He also flashed an ability to shoot outside the paint in his prep days at Chino Hills high school, and his solid .720 percent accuracy rate from the free throw line is also a possible sign for a bright future as a jump-shooter.
“He’s a very, very good defensive basketball player. He can protect the rim, he can rebound and he’s a very good pick-and-roll center with very good instincts,” Travis Schlenk said after the draft. “Offensively, he’s got unbelievable hands. He catches everything. He’s got the seven-foot wingspan and he can run the floor. So, we’re really excited about him.”
Even though Okongwu will never be mistaken for a behemoth such as fellow draftee Udoka Azubuike, he is big enough to play both frontcourt spots. Although reaching such lofty heights will be a challenge, he relishes comparisons to the Miami Heat’s all-star pivot.
“I feel like the Bam (Adebayo) comparisons are for sure accurate, and we’re similar players coming out of college,” Okongwu said. “It took him three years to develop coming out of college into the all-star he is now. So I feel like with time, I can be that kind of player with time.”
USC’s former star has all of the tools one could ask for, but like he said, he will require time to blossom into the star he can become. Fortunately for Okongwu, the Hawks traded for seven-footer Clint Capela last season. A veteran of deep playoff runs with the Houston Rockets, the Swiss mountain of a man will allow Onyeka Okongwu to gradually acclimate to NBA speed. Even though both are nominally centers, Capela and Okongwu may be able to share the floor in short bursts, assuming the rookie’s jump shot comes along.
“I feel like I can play inside and out, so when Clint is in the game we can be inside and out, and when John (Collins) is in the game we can be inside and out,” Okongwu said. “Me and him can help each other out on both sides of the floor. We’re all great athletes so we’re able to protect the rim and play defense.”
Travis Schlenk also selected LSU’s Skylar Mayes with their second-round pick, and the LSU guard possesses a well-rounded skillset, one he displayed on the court and in the box score with a 17/5/3 slash line. With the Hawks’ recent windfall in free-agency (more on that later), the former All-SEC pick might be a candidate to spend time at College Park for Atlanta’s G-League team.
“We had Skylar ranked a lot higher (than No. 50),” Schlenk said. “A four-year guy, an extremely smart basketball player, a very good body, a combo guard, a high basketball IQ, skilled player. We were excited when he was there because, like I said, we had him ranked much higher than that.”
Schlenk also signed William and Mary forward-center Nathan Knight as an undrafted free agent. Knight won the Lou Henson National Mid-Major Player of the Year and averaged 20.7 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. Knight was also crowned the CAA Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
Part two of this series will take a look at Atlanta’s free agent signings.
You can contact the author at email@example.com